Review of Religious Literacy

Review of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – And Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero

There’s nothing more dangerous than the combination of blind faith and ignorance.  This comes across clearly in Stephen Prothero’s book Religious Literacy.  America is far more religious than Europe.  According to this book, more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, over 80 percent say religion is important to them, and more than 70 percent pray daily. Despite seeing religion as important, Americans are not only ignorant of other religions, but their own as well. 

According to stats quoted here, only half of American adults can name one of the four Christian Gospels; fewer than half can name Genesis as the first book of the Bible; a majority think Jesus was born in Jerusalem; etc. Born again Christians were only slightly better at identifying quotes from the Bible. Fewer Jews thought Jesus was born in Jerusalem (51%) than evangelical Protestants (60%).

Why the low scores? Prothero does not blame the Supreme Court rulings against religion in public schools. While he does say that textbooks have greatly reduced the role of religion in history, school is not the cause as religion could have been also taught in the home and church. Instead, Prothero blames the second Great Awakening, in the early 19th century, that led to the idea that religion should be felt, not learned, faith through spirit, not books. Public schools adapted to America’s different forms of Protestantism by teaching a form of “nonsectarianism” (which really was a generic Protestantism, as both Catholics and Jews felt excluded from it).  Ultimately, opposition from Catholics, who demanded that if the public schools taught from the Protestant Bible than Catholics should get public funds for their own schools, forced the develop of a more honest nonsectarianism. At the same time, religious institutions were shifting from the intellect and the Bible to Jesus and the emotions, losing religious literacy. Instead of teaching theology and doctrine, they taught Bible stories and morality.

Ultimately then, Prothero’s solution is to institute Bible classes in the schools.  This is important to understand Biblical allusions common in literature. But Prothero wants more than Bible as literature; students need to be taught the “historical force” of the Bible and how it has influenced people’s actions.  In addition to the Bible, he would create a mandatory world religion course. He says this is not unconstitutional due to the importance of religion and the Bible and would be less controversial than many think.


The last part of the book, in admitted imitation of E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy is devoted to a 90 page dictionary of religious literacy with the definitions included.  Surprisingly, since the author seems familiar with Hirsch’s work, there is nothing comparing Americans’ lack of knowledge of the Bible with the lack of knowledge about everything else that made Cultural Literacy seem necessary. Yes, Americans don’t know much about religion.  But then, similar surveys and studies have shown that they don’t know much about history, geography, culture, science etc.


Why? One reason is that most people don’t read.  A recent AP poll found that 27% of Americans have not read a single book this year, the average (median) is 4 books or 6.5 books when excluding those who don’t read at all (9 for women, 5 for men). Just 20% of Americans have read more than 15 books this year. Students who don’t see their parents read, don’t read themselves.


There’s also a problem with Prothero’s solution. This is yet another attempt to solve a problem by increasing the burdens on the schools.  Whenever a survey or study has found that Americans don’t know something – whether it be personal finance, health, or now religion – there are always calls to put it into the curriculum.  But the curriculum is already overloaded. If anything, the focus on testing has sharply reduced the time available for everything but reading and math. If we keep increasing what schools have to cover without increasing the amount of time in class, all content gets more and more superficial.


So, Religious Literacy calls attention to an important problem.  But it’s a problem that should be solved by the churches, not the schools. After all, between a third to two-fifths of Americans attend a religious institution each week.  Over a lifetime that can add up. 


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